In Defense of Point Guards

Building a championship team around a point guard has been unsuccessful in the past 20 years, but that’s not to say that it isn’t still a good course of action. Zach Harper poses the question, “Should you build your team with a point[guard]?“, in a recent article on TrueHoop:

You’ve got a chance to draft a star point guard and make him the face of your franchise. He’ll easily be as good as Chris Paul. He’ll be as big as Deron Williams. He’ll be as athletic as Derrick Rose. He’ll do a little bit of everything like Rajon Rondo.

Would you build your team around this player?

Seems like a no-brainer, but the more I think about the NBA and what it takes to win, I don’t think I’d be willing to build any team around a point guard. The game just doesn’t work that way anymore if you want to win titles.

He goes on to present his case, looking at the title winning point guards over the past 20 years and breaking down their relevance on their respective title teams. The list turns up only one who was arguably the best player on the team, Chauncey Billups, who Zach argues wasn’t really the centerpiece of that team:

The one possible outlier is Billups, who was named Finals MVP in 2004 and helped the Pistons regain some glory. But was that Pistons team really built around him? Wasn’t it essentially built around Ben Wallace, defensive prowess and buoyed by the midseason acquisition of Rasheed Wallace? Billups ended up being their best player for a few season, but it’s hard to confidently say he was the focal point of those teams.

And he’s right. There hasn’t been a point guard in the past two decades to lead their team to a title. We interpret that data a little bit differently though. While I will agree with Zach about most things (like how to prepare for a 9am basketball game), I don’t agree with his conclusions on this one.

First off, most great point guards of the past 20 years haven’t been that historically great. Of those that arguably have been (Paul, Williams, Stockton, Kidd, Payton, Nash), two have been in the league for less time than it took MJ to win a title, [edit– and three made the finals]. As for Nash, he took some tough breaks against the Spurs, and his defense is awful. That’s all I have to say about him.

Of the three best point guards in the past twenty years that have finished playing, two have been painfully close to winning titles. Stockton was Jordan-ed for God’s sake!

It’s also hard to include Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the category of great point guards of the past two decades not to win titles because their teams have thus far been almost entirely unwilling to spend over the luxury tax line. If you’re looking for the reason Paul and Williams aren’t contending, that may be the more likely culprit.

On another note, there really hasn’t been a player on par with the pure basketball skills of Chris Paul since Isiah, who was also the last point guard to lead his team to a title. Sure, some people are going to claim Williams, Stockton, or Jason Kidd are up there, but get real. If you’re going to choose the best player of that bunch (when healthy) it’s going to be Paul.

I’m not going to sit here and predict what would have happened in 2007-2008 if somehow Pau Gasol had wound up on the Hornets instead of the Lakers, but it’s possible that there could be discussion taking place about how well building around a star point guard works. It would only have taken one strange deal being a little more strange to change the way we view the NBA. Butterfly effect, baby!

In my mind, a sure fire way to compete for NBA titles is combining a star big man, a superstar play maker who is able to take over games, and an owner willing to foot the bill for whatever else the coach needs. It doesn’t matter if that play maker is a point guard, a shooting guard, or a small forward, as long as he can take the ball in crunch time and deliver.

[polldaddy poll=3925812]

edit- Mikey wrote about building around a PG a while back in our Journal Section.

40 responses to “In Defense of Point Guards”

  1. Yeah except Rondo isnt the fourth option on the celtics. For much of the year the Boston Media was commenting on how Rondo is now their best player. Still team sports are about teams and no one player is going to put you over the top. Oh yeah Tony Parker? He’s pretty good. But what can you expect from a Timber-wolves fan?

    • Rondo was clearly the 4th option when they won the title. And deservedly so, not because they were holding him back.

      That said this is an excellent retort. It’s silly to make generic claims about what sort of player can win a championship when you have dynasties eating up chips by the handful. If they shuffled teams every year and you had 20 years of no PG-led winners it might mean something. Instead, the 90s had Jordan and the 2000s had Timmy and Shaq. In all, GP and Kidd were still the leaders on finals teams, Stockton almost won with Malone. The Suns were close to beating the Spurs (and then most likely beating the Easter Conference champion). I mean, I think those Nets teams were the best example of what a point guard is capable of…Jason Kidd was EVERYTHING to that team.

      All that said, I’d still prefer a big man to start with, I’d think that even with the shuffling of teams the big men would have an advantage, but the point guards would still win a few. That’s why I’d rank D12 a bit ahead of CP3 if I was starting a team today.

  2. I think your spot on about this. I think any championship team must have a skilled bigman who can score and play defense, in combination with a guy who can control the ball.

    It doesn’t matter if he’s a PG, SG or SF, get that guy a bigman and he’ll be in contention to win a championship.

  3. Based on the history of the NBA, the players with the most rings all had someone opposite their position that helped them take it to the top. For example, Russell had Havlicek, Kareem had Magic, and Michael had Scottie. Chris on the other (ringless) hand has West, but after him he doesn’t have any role players that fit the bill. Therein lies the problem.

  4. Definitely a small forward. Basically, Dr. J, Bird, Rick Barry, Magic, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron–they’re all prototype small forwards, even when they officially play at the 2 guard position. Having one of those guys is a better predictor of a championship calibre team than a superstar at any other single position. What they have in common is that, when motivated and skilled, they can initiate every single phase of the transition from defense to offense and back to defense: defending the other team’s designated scorer, rebounding, advancing the ball, dishing, scoring. No other position is as versatile by design.

    Sure, a team could win without one of them, but it would have to have superior players at at least 3 of the other positions. (Spurs upset the applecart, but hang with it for a minute.) 4 of the top five legit contenders this year have a top-tier prototype 3: LA, MIA, OKC, BOS. Orlando is a Vince away from a crown, just as Houston was a T-Mac away for so long.

    So this is why I say, forget the metrics: hello, Melo. It could still happen.

    • Just like to point out that Magic was a PG… I giant one, but a PG none the less. I know he could play any of the Guard/Wing positions and he does fit your description of the kind of player you want, but he was a PG. LOL

    • @ Sportnlife
      I’m not sure I follow. Magic was a point guard/power forward. Michael was a shooting guard with Horace, Dennis, and Scottie at forward. And Rick Barry only won one championship.

    • i’m sorry but i think the position of power is not the small forward but the Power Forward/Center. Look up all the championship teams, all of them either have a great PF or a great C. Gasol, KG, Duncan, Shaq, Ben Wallace, Rodman, Olajuwon, Mchale/Parish, Kareem, Moses Malone, ….

      if we can pair CP3 with a great PF or a great C, then everything else we be easier. Sadly, i think DWest is past the point of being called a “great” PF, he can however become a complimentary PF to our “great” C. Now who can that be? I can’t think of any, because skilled C in the league are hard to find..

      • Very well put Nikko. I’m not sure if there are any great centers available in the NBA, but I’d be more than willing to tryout the Young Turk, Kerem Gönlüm. The Bulls and Celtics both got his teammates, and they seem to be doing well. So why not give Kerem a shot?

  5. Yeah, a point guard who played center on a championship team. Still an argument for the versatile ones.

    But, point taken. (ouch.)

  6. And just because a point guard hasn’t led a team to a title in quite some time doesn’t mean it won’t ever be done again. Chris Paul was vital in getting the Hornets to within 1 game of the WC Finals as the best player on the team.

  7. “Of those that arguably have been (Paul, Williams, Stockton, Kidd, Payton, Nash), two have been in the league for less time than it took MJ to win a title, two made the finals, and one never got enough help*.”

    I have no contention with your take on Paul/Williams/Nash. The other three all made it to the Finals (Payton ’96, Stockton ’97/’98 & Kidd ’02/’03). Both Payton and Stockton were “Jordan-ed”: the Supersonics dropped the first 3 games of the series to the 72-10 Bulls (although I suppose drawing Chicago that year vs. any other precludes his inclusion in the “painfully” close losses category.) As far as not having enough help, unless I’m mistaken the Sonics were notorious chokers (i.e. first #1 seed to ever lose to a #8 seed). I don’t think you can blame the personnel (the ’96 Sonics posted the best regular season W-L record of any team the six point guards you listed played for: 64-18). Still, the Sonics proved that gods get papercuts by prolonging the series for another three games.

    My actual point was that if anyone didn’t have enough help, it was Kidd, albeit playing in a truly Leastern Conference (then again, he drew the Lakers at the tail end of the threepeat the first year and Tim Duncan in his prime for the second). They went 2-8 in those two Finals series. Kenyon Martin was a fairly effective Robin in ’02 (22/7/3 in 40 mpg)…but Shaq dropped 36/13/4 with 3 bpg for good measure and that’s all she wrote (the Lakers as a whole shot 51% fg and 48% 3p). The next year Kidd was on an island, despite the Nets tenacious D (Spurs shot 43% fg and 32% 3p…but Duncan went nuclear to the tune of 24/17/5 and 5! bpg). Ultimately, the Lakers & Spurs had the luxury of a go-to post (…any efficient scorer would have sufficed) player, and the Nets simply lacked the firepower.

    Stockton played alongside an MVP and future HOF in Karl Malone, Payton had Shawn Kemp (23/10 against the vaunted Bulls squad…on 55% fg and 86% ft, perhaps the closest they came to playing a dominant center in the Finals), and Kidd had…Kenyon Martin (17/10 at his peak, never cracked 20 PER in the regular season, put up a 21.0 in ’04…the year the Pistons were the Eastern Conference champs). To be fair, Martin was a presence defensively, but he was the least impressive of the betas (…are we assuming Stockton was the alpha? Seems chicken-egg at best) as well as by far the most impressive of Kidd’s teammates.

    Long tirade short…the game isn’t won at any one position. Obviously having an elite player offers a tactical advantage, but it’s not realistic to suggest that “we have the best PG in the league, we should be contenders every year.” Nice building block, but a Lakers-Heat battle wouldn’t be decided by Kobe (#1 SG) over Dwyane (#2 SG) [or vice versa if you disagree] so much as Bynum-insertroleplayerhere or Odom-insertroleplayerhere. That edge is only relevant when all the other parts are equal.

    Obviously transcendent players are rare gems, but I think the modern game favors explosive superstar wings who can double as primary ballhandlers in crunchtime (i.e. LeBron, Wade, Bryant…to a lesser extent, Pierce, Johnson, Roy, et al.) The ability to draw fouls and create for oneself as well as make plays for others when the pressure ramps up and the offense breaks down is crucial. In the absence of such a player, a post player who can create his own offense, draw fouls, command a double team (i.e. post playmaking) and/or defend the paint come late game (at least 3 of the 4) would be the next most preferable.

  8. I’m pretty sure you can build around any position/ player who is good enough in what he is doing (and CP is!). The challenge why it’s tough to start with a guard/ point guard is the build-around-phrase. If you build around a PG, you still need capable bigs, and they are pretty rare!!! You’re able to find serviceable guards almost everywhere, that makes things easier and probably cheaper when you don’t have to spend so much for a PG. That’s why the center position will win the poll above!

  9. If im building a team from scratch from current NBA players, im taking Dwight Howard and going from there, no doubt.

  10. I posted a journal posing this very same question back in January of this year, but I went back even further. In my post I could really only one true PG-led team that won titles, and that’s Isiah’s Pistons.

    A better question is “Can a team win an NBA title without a top-tier big man?” If you look back 30 years, that answer is “Unless you’re Michael Jordan, not a chance.” How many championships has Kobe Bryant won without Shaq or Gasol? Answer, 0. Magic had Kareem and James Worthy (and was 6’9 in his own right). Bird had Kevin McHale, the Chief, and an old Bill Walton. Dr. J couldn’t get it done until they went and got Moses Malone. Even the ’04 pistons traded for Rasheed Wallace to shore up their frontline rotation, and that would be the closest I could think of in regards to a team without a “dominant” big.

  11. You say that only two made the finals!? Stockton (twice), Kidd (twice) but you seem to count Payton saying he was at the end of his career in Miami (ring) and LA, but what about 1996 for crying out loud!!! Please don’t hurt Sonics fans any more than they need, they already have suffered enough…

  12. Hate to point out mistakes (ok, no I don’t) but 3 of those point guards lost in the Finals (Payton in 1995-1996 w/ Kemp to da Bulls when he did play a significant role, and I think you were referring to Stockton and Kidd).

    I would add that the point guard has got to be able to take over the game…like Magic and Isiah…as you mention, Paul can do that..not so sure about Williams.

    • So I assume you didn’t watch last year’s playoffs then…or the playoffs two years ago…Chris Paul had one phenomenal postseason back in 2008. He was average in 09.

  13. So Payton (3 appearances) won a title in Miami, went to the finals with LA and went to the Finals in Seattle. Kidd went to 2 straight finals with the Nets and Stockton went to 2 straight with Utah. How does that math equal 2?

  14. Joe, you basically conveyed the same message that I did with your poll. Given all else equal, would a superstar center or a superstar PG produce more wins/titles.

    I’m sure we can do that math and back into a few supporting arguments for either. But the simple argument that can’t be refuted is that there are more PG sized players than Center sized players, which means that typically, superstar Centers would exhibit a much higher probability of having mismatches, and hence completely dominating at their position, than a PG would.

    Lack of Centers means Centers would dominate due to size
    Many PG sized players means that superstar PGs who are faster and bigger would dominate as well, but not to the extent that Centers would.

  15. At some point, you need someone on your team that can get you baskets one on one late in a game you have to win. You need a person that can get to the basket and finish, someone that is a true scorer in this league and PG is the toughest position to do that from. The one rule that has followed every title team that I can remember, is that you need a player that can get buckets from the block to win, and that is the one spot on the floor a you will hardly ever see a great PG.

  16. Hey guys,

    Would anybody be interested in Gilbert Arenas? If we trade Willie G., Pops, and Gray, then we might be able to snag him. Thoughts? Poll? Anybody?

    • You do realise that Gilbert Arenas is has about a zillion dollars left on his contract right? (Okay – more specifically, about $80 million). On a team that couldn’t find $500,000 more for Louis Amundson, hell will freeze over before we trade for him.

      Or were you joking?

      • Why so frosty Icebird? I just heard he was up for grabs, so I asked the question. That’s all.

    • this is being discussed in the trade thread in the forum. I am not going to restate the discussion, but the few of us who have commented seem to think he is too pricey for his contributions.

      My personal take is if he were around $4 Million less a year, then maybe. But, if “if” was a skiff we would be on a boat ride.

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